On Cugoano on Hume on Race, and the Protestant Work Ethic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/01/2020 - 7:16am in


Racism, Religion

But as a hindrance to this, the many Anti-christian errors which are gone abroad into the world, and all the popish superstition and nonsense, and the various assimilations unto it, with the false philosophy which abounds among Christians, seems to threaten with an universal deluge; but God hath promised to fill the world with a knowledge of himself, and he hath set up his bow, in the rational heavens, as well as in the clouds, as a token that he will stop the proud ways of error and delusion, that hitherto they may come, and no farther. The holy arch of truth is to be seen in the azure paths of the pious and wise, and conspicuously painted in crimson over the martyrs tombs. These, with the golden altars of truth, built up by the reformed churches, and many pious, good and righteous men, are bulwarks that will ever stand against all the forts of error. Teaching would be exceeding necessary to the pagan nations and ignorant people in every place and situation; but they do not need any unscriptural forms and ceremonies to be taught unto them; they can devise superstitions enough among them|selves, and church government too, if ever they need any.

And hence we would agree in this one thing with that erroneous philosopher, who has lately wrote An Apology for Negro Slavery,

But if the slave is only to be made acquainted with the form, without the substance; if he is only to be decked out with the external trappings of religion; if he is only to be taught the uncheering principles of gloomy superstition; or, if he is only to be inspired with the intemperate frenzy of enthusiastic fanaticism, it were better that he remained in that dark state, where he could not see good from ill.

But these words temperate, frenzy, enthusiastic, and fanaticism may be variously applied, and often wrongfully; but, perhaps never better, or more fitly, than to be ascribed as the genuine character of this author's brutish philosophy; and he may subscribe it, and the meaning of these words, with as much affinity to himself, as he bears a relation to a Hume, or to his friend Tobin. The poor negroes in the West-Indies, have suffered enough by such religion as the philosophers of the North produce; Protestants, as they are called, are the most barbarous slave-holders, and there are none can equal the Scotch floggers and negroe-drivers, and the barbarous Dutch cruelties. Perhaps as the church of Rome begins to sink in its power, its followers may encrease in virtue and humanity; so that many, who are the professed adherents thereof, would even blush and abhor the very mention of the cruelty and bloody deeds that their ancestors have committed; and we find slavery itself more tolerable among them, than it is in the Protestant countries.--Ottobah Cugoano (1787), Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and wicked traffic of the slavery: and commerce of the human species, humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great-Britain, 144-146. [HT Chike Jeffer's "Rights, Race, and the Beginnings of Modern Africana Philosophy"]

In the context of the quoted passage (which is close to the culmination of his argument), Cugoano (recall) is very clear that philosophers writing at the center of maritime power are co-responsible in creating the conditions of the horrors of slavery. What they call 'philosophy' is really "brutish" and de facto an ideology of exploitation and imperialism. I use 'ideology' to capture Cugoano's use of 'religion' in order to avoid confusion. For most of Cugoano's arguments in the book convey the idea that the possible (and providential) spread of true religion is just  about only valuable thing to come out of slavery which is a part and parcel of a (false and) anti-christian religion (characterized by frenzy/enthusiasm/fanaticism and inhumanity). 

The reference to Hume caught my attention. Hume is, of course, a great critic of enthusiasm and fanaticism in religion. I am familiar with Hume's racist (and even anti-semitic) writings (recall here, and here). Even so, I was unsure how to take the sentence in which he figures because I did not understand the "relation" between Hume and the passage quoted from Gordon Turnbell's (1786)* An Apology for Negro Slavery. ("Tobin" is a reference to James Tobin's (1785) Cursory Remarks upon the Reverend Mr. Ramsay's Essay.) For, while Hume was not against the extension, even violent extension, of 'civilization,' Hume would have little interest in turning anybody into a true Christian (unless he could be allowed to redefine true Christianity.) Moreover, Hume was a genuine critic of slavery.+ But a turn to Turnbull clarifies the situation at once. The one and only reference to Hume occurs in the following passage:

IT is not without the ſemblance, at leaſt, oſ probable conjecture, or reaſonable hypothefis, that Mr. Hume, and ſome other eminent writers, imagined the negro-race to be an inferior ſpecies oſ mankind. But, allowing that they are born equal with white men, yet, a minute obſervation, or thorough knowledge of their character and diſpoſition, ſeems to evince, that they are not at all fitted to fill the ſuperior ſtations, or more elevated ranks in civil ſociety.

Turnbull is clearly aware of Hume's footnote in "Of National Character." And, in larger context, he treats the inferiority and lack of work ethic of negroes ("very idly disposed) as part of his justification of slavery. I'll spare you the details but it turns ethnic/race based slavery -- with a nod to the great chain of being (which gives the 'chain' in it a whole new association for me) -- into something that fits the proper order of nature. 

As an aside, on the next page Turnbull quotes (from Chapter XVI of the Spirit of the Laws) Montesquieu to compare the (purported) lenient slavery on the plantations of the West-Indian islands with the (purported) lenient kind of slavery found in classical Athens. Some other time I return to Turnbull's use of Montesquieu because Montesquieu's views on the natural causes of slavery clearly frame his whole argument (but recall here).

Be that as it may, Cugoano's criticism of Turnbull points us to the fact that the very idea of a work ethic as a mark of superiority is developed by protestant authors, in part, to justify race-based slavery.** Cugoano clearly thinks that such ideology is a predictable consequence of great inequalities of power. (He hopes, for example, that the Catholic Church's reduced power will lead to a more humanitarian philosophy among it.) But he also thinks that it is a duty, even a true Christian duty, to combat the spread of oppressive ideologies of one's age.


*I am unsure when the first edition of Turnbull's book appeared, but it seems to be 1786. I have only access to the second edition which appeared in 1786.

+Here is the relevant passage from "Of Populousness of Ancient Nations:"

Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty...cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection. But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of EUROPE, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever. The more the master is removed from us in place and rank, the greater liberty we enjoy; the less are our actions inspected and controled; and the fainter that cruel comparison becomes between our own subjection, and the freedom, and even dominion of another. The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the AMERICAN colonies, and among some EUROPEAN nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal. The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion. Nor can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times, than the practice of domestic slavery; by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves.

It is notable that Hume's criticism anticipates the spirit of Kant's formula of the universal law of nature. Also, the target of this passage is clearly Montesquiu who had suggested that Athenian slavery was lenient (in a passage quoted by Turnbull in the next page).

**On the use of 'race'--it is pretty clear that Turnbull and Cugoano (and others) are debating the effects of a color line on political practices. How their geographically based ethnic contrast maps onto more nineteenth century scientific racism is a complex question. But as regular readers know (recall) ethnic population based eugenics is clearly present in Berkeley so we should not overstate the contrast between eighteenth and nineteenth century views. (See Justin Smith's book for a useful conceptual and historical apparatus.)

How Many Lives WilI Wreck?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/01/2020 - 11:39pm in



No, That Must Have Been You

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/01/2020 - 12:06am in



Everybody But Me is Shit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/01/2020 - 12:13am in



In Some Weird Countries, Elections Depend Entirely on Religious Fanatics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/01/2020 - 6:14pm in

There is a Civil War between Christian evangelists in the United States over whether or not to support Donald Trump. Some Christians point to his moral degeneracy. Others say that God often works with flawed people. I just wonder, why do we have to care about what these crazy people think?

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/12/2019 - 8:14am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 26, 2019 Adam Kotsko, author of “The Evangelical Mind,” on the life and thought of that tendency • Shailja Sharma on India’s new citizenship law and protests against the country’s drift into fascism

About That Open Letter to *Christianity Today*

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/12/2019 - 10:52am in

The reaction to that Christianity Today article is really heating up.

Video on My Model of the Neolithic Mortuary House at Loftus in Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 22/12/2019 - 3:39am in

A bit more archaeology now, for those interested. Four years ago in 2015 I made this video about the model I’d made of the Neolithic mortuary house and palisade around its forecourt discovered beneath a long barrow, also from the Neolithic, at Loftus in Cleveland, Britain by Blaise Vyner during excavations from 1979 to 1981. The Neolithic was the period c. 4,000 BC when hunter-gatherers were settling down into settled communities and farming. The built long barrows to house the remains of their dead. The remains come from many different skeletons, and are often sorted according to body part. Long bones, for example, may be stored in one chamber while other parts of the skeleton were kept in another. Many of the barrows also have forecourts, some of which have traces of burning dating from the time they were built and used. From this archaeologists have suggested that the barrows were also the centres of religious ceremonies in which parts of the skeletons were handled in order to commune with the ancestors.

Mortuary houses are structures in which the bodies of the dead are kept during decomposition, after which they are buried for a second time with appropriate rituals. It’s a funerary practice found in many different society throughout the world, including North American First Nations and the people of Madagascar.

Incidentally, today is the winter solstice, which some archaeologists believe was the real time the stone circle at Stonehenge was built to mark. This is the shortest day of the year, after which the sun returns and the days start lengthening again. This would be seen by the monument’s ancient builders as the return of warmth, light and the revival of life after the cold of winter, and so an important event for early agricultural communities.

But considering how cold and miserable it’s been, I think it’ll be a very brave set of pagans, druids and hippies, who would go down there to celebrate it today. But I’ve no doubt some hardy souls will do it.


Are Electric Vehicles Similar to the Sacred Cow?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/12/2019 - 4:58am in

Environmentalists believe that individual actions can save the environment from carbon pollution. One such action is driving electric cars that emit no carbon while running.

Killing Herd Animals

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/12/2019 - 12:43pm in


Ideology, Religion

One of the great crimes and tragedies of our world is how we treat the animals we eat (or whose milk or eggs or other products we eat and use.) Factory farming keeps them in tiny enclosures, feeds them monotonous foods, and then when they’re slaughtered it’s a terrible experience: they’re terrified and die in pain.

There’s been a kerfuffle in Britain, where the Green Party leader said he’d bank Halal meats.

There’s an argument for this based on Nassim Taleb’s tyranny of the committed minority. If enough people simply won’t buy something unless it’s done their way, it makes sense for capitalists to just produce all of whatever it is that way. “Just butcher them all Halal.”

Halal killing is a cut to the jugular vein, and then all blood is drained. In part it’s fairly clear that the intent is to spare animals pain, same as it is in Kosher butchering, where the carotid and jugular and windpipe are all cut in one smooth motion.

So both these things seem good to me, but it seems that there’s a third style of killing herd animals that is even more painless: the Mongolian one. They make a small incisition in the neck, then pull out a vein. The animal dies quickly and painlessly (though it’s messy, as you’d expect.)

I have little respect for religious rules just because they’re religious, and that includes rules about how animals are treated. Animals, especially mammals, clearly have emotions and suffer. If you want to obey “God’s” rules yourself, knock yourself out as long as it affects no one but you. But when it effects other people, those rules get no extra points because “God” said so.

Both Halal and Kosher killing is better than what happens in most slaughterhouses. But if Mongolian butchering is painless, then that’s what we should use. It should be mandated by law, everyone who kills animals should be trained, and slaughterhouses should be inspected.

And if that means some Jews and Muslims (or anyone else) decide not to eat meat, they can go howl.

The point here isn’t really about slaughtering animals (though we should do it humanely, and yeah, I’m willing to see prices go up if that’s required and I’m poor enough that means I’d eat less meat), but about religions and ideologies and policies.

Religions are ideologies which claim special status. “God said”, usually.

Those claims are laughable. It’s not that God may or may not exist, it’s that there are too many religions all claiming “God” said different things.

Obviously most of them are wrong. Heck, they’re probably all wrong, even if God exists.

So that means they’re just ideologies: a series of assertions about how the world is, how the world should be and how humans should think, feel and act. As such they are due no more deference than any other ideology, whether capitalism, the divine right of kinds, the Pax Romana, or democracy. They are simply provisional sets of ideas, from a particular time, with a particular history, and they can be wrong, or more to the point, harmful. Some will be good, some bad, and so on.

As such they must be evaluated by the good they do, and the harm, and if better ways of doing things, in terms of the welfare of humans, animals and life in general are found, what some guy centuries or millenia ago said about what God wanted should be thrown out the window.

Religion, all religion, including yours, is just ideology in supernatural drag.

Treat it as such.

Some money would be rather useful, as I don’t get paid by the piece. If you want to support my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.